At some stage, almost any photographer will be bitten by the macro bug. Something about seeing things close up in ultra-high definition attracts almost everyone to flirt with the world of macro photography at some point on their photographic path. But a macro lens can be expensive and many of us are not sure about spending a lot of money on a lens that we may not end up using that much. Luckily, there are a few readily available alternatives to buying an expensive lens that will let you dip your toes in the world of macro without jumping in the pool.
Extension Tubes – These empty tubes are placed between you camera and an existing lens (I use my 50mm, but they work on others). Basically, the further away from the sensor that the lens is, then the greater the magnification of the image will be. The cheaper ones have no electronic contact points meaning that you will have to control the focus and aperture manually. More expensive ones allow this automatically. You can pick up a set of Kenko extension tubes (new) on ebay from around $30.
Bellows – A macro bellows works on much the same principle as extension tubes by fitting between your camera and existing lens in order to move the lens further away from the sensor. The effect is a magnified image. The difference is that you can control that distance exactly as the bellows allow you to slide the lens out along rails to your desired magnification. I picked my Macro bellows up on ebay for about $80.
Reversing Ring – These cheap little gadgets simply allow you to put your lens on backwards. A cheap one won't have any electronic contact points, so once again you have to control aperture manually and focus can be controlled mainly by moving towards or away from the subject. You can find a reversing ring on ebay from around $15. I use one to reverse my 50mm and it works fine.
Lens Coupler – You can also get a cheap device which allows you to attach a lens to your camera in the normal way, but then add a reversed lens on the front of that. It's a similar process to a reversing ring, but allows you to use that extra lens (and its associated automatic functions). These start from around $5 on ebay.
Close Up Filter (aka close up lens) – Another cheap option is to add one of these bad boys to the front of your existing lens. These lenses decrease the minimum focussing distance, allowing you to get a lot closer to a subject. You can also stack several close up filters to increase magnification even further.
A Note on Quality
These options are really to ease you into the world of macro photography without breaking the bank. Many of the options come with their own set of problems though. For examples, close up filters will give you problems with chromatic aberations and reversing rings can be a great way to get dirt inside your lens. Certainly none of these options is as “easy” as simply dumping a lot of cash on a great macro. But remember that skill can make up for a lot of the problems. Case in point is the stunning macro photography of Thomas Shahan, much of which is done with a bellows and reversing ring.
Use these options to test your dedication to the world of macro photography. If you find that you're loving it so much and feel that you're being held back by your equipment, then by all means explore more expensive lens options. Just don't fall into the trap of thinking that an expensive lens is going to improve your skills. As you can see above, there are some very stunning things you can do with the “cheap” options in macro.